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O.C. Art / Cathy Curtis : New Costa Mesa Gallery Is Fancy-Free

A funny thing happened on the way to the poorhouse.

It’s no secret that the recession has dealt a heavy blow to art galleries nationwide, and Orange County is hardly immune. One local gallery owner whose debts forced him to close up shop a few months ago moaned that locals simply don’t buy contemporary art--or if they do, they purchase it from famous galleries in New York.

Meanwhile, however, a few first-time art dealers have rushed in to fill the vacuum. Their secret? They are shunning shopping malls and downtown Laguna Beach in favor of funky industrial zones or decidedly non-yuppie downtown areas.

At the moment, the most promising of these ventures is Griffin Fine Art in Costa Mesa, which opened late last month with the aim of bringing emerging artists together with emerging collectors.

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Housed in a former boat warehouse next to an auto body shop, the gallery has a facade that makes “humble” sound like a compliment. But the interior of the airy 3,200-square-foot corrugated metal building is a charmer, with a loft and a long, narrow annex.

Co-owner Bill Griffin, 28, a slim, eager account executive at Xerox in Santa Ana by day, was not involved with art when he was a marketing student at the University of Richmond, Virginia. But when he began working in Washington, the Smithsonian Institution became a favorite Sunday afternoon haunt.

“It was free, and it was a marvelous way to learn,” he said. “I love to learn. I think I’ll learn until the day I die.”

Four years ago, when Xerox transferred him to Orange County, Griffin began wolfing down night and weekend courses in art history and contemporary art at colleges and museums. A couple of years ago, he joined MOCA Contemporaries, a support group for young collectors at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

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“I didn’t know anyone out here,” he said. “It was a great avenue for me to learn and see (art), to be with people my own age.”

Last summer, Griffin founded Newport Harbor Contemporaries at Newport Harbor Art Museum, which now has about 100 members.

“For younger people, (art) is real intimidating if you didn’t grow up with it,” he said. “That’s why this gallery: The idea is to be very open and education-oriented.”

His rental agreement hinged on his willingness to refurbish the 100-year-old warehouse, a project that used up “all the money that would have gone into buying a little yuppie house.”

But monthly overhead for the gallery is less than $1,500. “I consider us grass roots,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to get into a big retail place in a mall or on a corner. That’s not what I believe the artists that we’re going to show here are about.”

While Griffin primarily sees to the business side of the venture, his equally energetic partner, Meg Linton, is in charge of the art.

Linton, 27, is finishing her second year in the master of fine arts program in museum studies at Cal State Fullerton, having earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature from UC Irvine. “Almost all my friends are artists,” she said.

She met Griffin while auditing an art-theory class taught by Tom Dowling at Orange Coast College. Dowling told her that Griffin wanted to own a gallery, and the two started working on the project at the beginning of this year.

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“Within three weeks, I had accumulated a whole list of slides,” Linton said. “We both just fed off each other’s energy, and it grew from there.”

The gallery will be open to many styles and media, she said: “I’m of the postmodern generation. I’ve been brought up with so many different backgrounds. Technique and craftsmanship are important to me. (Artists I like) have the techniques down, and then they have the extra advantage of content. . . . Art is about concepts. Whatever medium you’re working in, you can still be dealing with art issues.”

Next on the exhibition schedule is “Foto” (Thursday through June 30), a group of photographs by about 20 Southern California artists working in traditional and new forms.

At the moment, the most interesting mix of work is hanging in the annex, which Linton calls “my testing grounds.”

“Some of the artists I’ve known for seven or eight years and have seen their work grow,” Linton said. “There are a lot of wonderful artists who all move away. We’re hoping we can be a reason for them to stay.”

Prices for the small annex-gallery pieces range from $125 to $1,800. In general, Griffin wants to keep prices under $1,000. This approach seems to be working: Of the 11 pieces sold out of the current show, the majority were purchased by first-time buyers, Griffin said.

The gallery takes only a 10% or 20% commission (rather than the usual 50%) on work by some artists. “We had to make some concessions because the (artists’ usual prices) were higher than what I wanted to see,” Griffin said. “I decided to take it off my end. . . . I can operate without selling anything, and I’ll be fine.”

*

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He aims to turn the gallery into a kind of clubhouse for younger art collectors and collectors-to-be. Summer plans include outdoor screenings of art films and “Afterhours Thursdays” (6 to 11 p.m.), which he envisions as a free-form, drop-in “cultural center.”

A free Saturday night lecture series began recently. Coming up: Mike McGee, director of the Cal State Fullerton Gallery, speaks on “Victories for Antiheroes and Why You Have 500 Channels on Your TV” on June 11 at 7 p.m.

This eclectic, unpretentious style, plus the snappy graphics on the gallery’s promotional materials (some of which are amusingly packaged in CD jewel boxes) proclaim a distinctive attitude toward clients and artists alike.

In Griffin’s view, marketing an art gallery like his is “not a shotgun approach, not like selling a commodity. . . . It’s more on a personal level.”

Of course, panache and business smarts don’t ensure success all by themselves. A dealer must have a broad and sophisticated knowledge of the scene, as well as an extraordinary ability for spotting and nurturing talent, and conveying enthusiasm about the work to potential clients.

Dealer-client relations in Orange County often require an extra dose of persuasion: Typically, collectors are loath to purchase anything their friends and neighbors might not like.

But Griffin is undaunted. He is targeting the MTV generation, not wealthy, middle-aged collectors looking for blue-chip work, and his notion of customer relations (“a long-term partnership”) comes straight from Xerox.

Business school taught him about “benchmarking"--learning from successful ventures--and that’s why he spent hours hanging out at such well-regarded galleries for emerging artists as Food House in Santa Monica and Sue Spaid in Los Angeles.

“They’re a new type of gallery for the ‘90s,” he says. “They’re not hype-oriented or polished or stuffy. . . . As simple as we can keep things, that’s as successful as we’ll be.”

In contrast, too many Orange County contemporary art gallery owners, past and present, seem to have looked to the wrong models. The result: suffocatingly bland, corporate locations--more suited to selling Mercedes-Benzes or designer suits--stocked with art straight from Dullsville.

To be sure, other commercial-art galleries in Orange County have tested the “alternative” route. A few years ago, Miki G. Hammond opened the Art Loft (since closed) right around the corner from Griffin, in the no-frills Mesa Business Center. Several coffeehouses show art. Community-based galleries, including the Caged Chameleon in Santa Ana, offer forums for a wide range of emerging artists.

But none of these spaces specializes in the smart, innovative work that people travel to Los Angeles to see. So far, only Stuart Katz’s Loft in Laguna Beach has been attempting to fill this niche.

Of course, unlike most art dealers, Griffin isn’t depending on art sales to make a living. Neither he nor Linton--who also runs the two galleries at Cal State Fullerton and works as a paralegal--is receiving a salary from the gallery.

Although he concedes that running a gallery full time “might make sense, down the road,” for the foreseeable future he intends to keep his 7-to-5 job at Xerox.

His night hours at the gallery have put a major dent in his personal life, but he doesn’t envision burning out. “At 28, I can handle this,” he says. “This has been the best thing in my life.”

Says Linton, “We both have a lot of energy, and we both are very strong willed and want to accomplish a lot with our lives. . . . It’s like, we can do anything.”

* Griffin Fine Art, 1640 Pomona Ave., Costa Mesa, is open from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, and by appointment. (714) 646-5665.


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